Monthly Archives: November 2015
Scapegoating the refugees
Scapegoating the refugees
A tide of increased xenophobia in Europe in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is making refugees pawns in the debate over terrorism, writes Salah Nasraw
On a street corner in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek, a small crowd of visitors gathers outside the fortified building of the German embassy early in the morning on each working day.
While some are seated on cheap fixed outdoor benches, others seek shelter from the scorching sun under trees or stroll back and forth waiting for the consulate’s reception windows to open.
This is the location of what is meant to be a reception area for visa applicants who have waited for days, sometimes weeks, to make an online appointment to submit the required documents.
Anxiety is locked on the faces of those who are waiting as they exchange stories about the arduous task of getting a Schengen visa to travel to Europe.
Sitting in the open-air waiting area, it’s hard to imagine that these people plan to travel to Europe for business, medical treatment, education, family reunions or tourism. Many are turned away in frustration after brief questioning and a quick examination of their papers by a faceless clerk who speaks through an intercom from behind a bullet-proof glass window.
Only those with the required documents (bank statements, property deeds, a marriage certificate, an invitation letter and so on) will be allowed into the consulate after passing through a metal detector and a body scan and then going through another tedious process of vetting and checking their documents.
In other EU embassies in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries the scene is not very different. Visa applicants, some with family members within the EU, sometimes have humiliating waits of days at a time at EU consulates. Only the lucky ones will be able to collect their passports with visas stamped in them and often weeks later.
The emotional condition of a visa applicant who has had to go through such a humiliating experience and then is denied a visa is not difficult to imagine.
Of course, the requirement made of some foreign nationals to obtain a visa before entering a given country remains a sovereign matter and falls within that country’s right to protect its security and national interests.
Yet, visa policies should not be used to hinder economic, cultural and human exchanges, including the right of those seeking a better life abroad or protection from persecution or tyranny.
If history can teach us anything, stringent visa restrictions, such as those imposed by European consulates on ordinary travellers, have never been successful in stopping migrants from trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, sometimes in small fishing boats or by trekking through the cornfields of Eastern Europe.
Indeed, the migrant tragedy of epic proportions this summer has manifested Europe’s failure to establish flexible visa policies and respectful procedures that serve to advance human, political, economic and cultural relationships between Europe and the peoples of the southern Mediterranean who are bound to it by historical ties and shared interests.
In a way, the influx of refugees into Europe this summer, with all the horror stories experienced during their journeys witnessed by the world as a whole, was a firm show of the degrading experience of failed attempts to get legal entry to European countries.
Unfortunately, the anti-Europe or anti-immigrant far right on the continent that is now capitalising on the unprecedented migrant crisis triggered by the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and fears of increasing terrorism is hardly making things easier.
It looks set to lead to new get-tough policies by European governments that tend to appease hardliners and give home security priority over humanitarian issues.
In the days after the wave of deadly attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on 13 November, the European Union agreed to rush through changes to the passport-free Schengen Zone by the end of the year that would tighten checks on the external borders of the 26-nation area.
The planned changes, which will allow for “systematic and obligatory checks at all external borders for all travellers,” are a further blow to the Schengen Zone as a pillar of European unity and freedom.
The changes will also include new migration policies for asylum-seekers gathering in immigration “hotspots” and measures to put pressure on Italy and Greece to do more to process migrants.
Throughout Europe, right-wing politicians have seized the opportunity to warn against accepting any more people fleeing war and persecution in Muslim-majority countries.
In France, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Belgium, far-right politicians have demanded an “immediate halt” to all intakes of migrants. Some, like French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, have warned that “Islamic fundamentalism must be annihilated.”
In Britain, more than 420,000 people have signed a petition calling on the UK to “close its borders.” Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which 3.8 million Britons voted for in the 2015 general elections, said the EU was “seriously imperiling our security”.
Across the Atlantic, the party of fear has also seized on the Paris attacks. The US House of Representatives has passed a bill sponsored by the Republican Party that will make it harder for people fleeing war-torn countries to come to the US.
The legislature has also suspended a programme allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the US until key national security agencies certify that they do not pose a security risk.
More than half of US state governors have voiced their opposition to letting Syrian refugees into their states, even though the final say on the matter falls to the US federal government.
According to a Bloomberg poll, most Americans agree with the governors and with Republican Party presidential election candidates seeking to project a firm stance on national security ahead of next year’s elections.
By contrast, other politicians, though fearful of the right-wing and media drumbeat for war against the refugees, have not been reluctant to attack such perceptions.
US President Barack Obama said his administration would remain committed to the refugee resettlement programme and derided his Republican opponents for being scared of “widows and orphans.”
French President François Hollande reiterated his country’s “humanitarian duty” to welcome 30,000 refugees over the next two years. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has warned against scapegoating the refugees.
Western worries that a surge in the number of refugees entering Europe from Syria has allowed jihadists to sneak into EU countries unchecked and unnoticed seem to be highly overblown.
A report that a passport found near the remains of a suicide-bomber in Paris purporting to belong to a Syrian refugee turned out to be false. Almost all those accused in the Paris events, including Abdel-Hamid Abaaoud, the presumed mastermind of the attacks, also turned out to be French or Belgian citizens.
Yet, xenophobia in the wake of the Paris attacks continues to give rise to fearful headlines in the media coverage while politicians continue their drumbeat for war against Muslims, with some failing to distinguish between Islamic State (IS) group militants and ordinary migrants who are often themselves trying to escape the terror organisation.
Watching Western reactions to the horrific events of 13 November in Paris, one may have the helpless sense of déjà vu. It is a familiar pattern: political exploitation, fear-mongering, media hate speech and analysis from pundits and terrorism experts who blame Islam for global terrorism and defend unlimited state power.
While there is a tremendous need to focus on the failure of the American and European strategies in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, especially after its spectacular advances in Iraq and Syria, fundamental questions about the failure of American and European foreign policy in the Middle East are certainly unavoidable.
The roots of misunderstandings, negative perceptions, violence, conflicts and fears of all-out war between the West and at least parts of the Muslim world lie in the failure of the United States and Europe to build democratic relationships with Muslims and in particular with the Arabs.
Today, there is no evidence that Western nations are trying to learn from the mistakes, follies and colonial crimes of the past. Instead, they are allowing a rhetoric of hate, bigotry and Islamophobia to dictate the agenda of the US and the EU in the Middle East.
It is here that not only do the irrational demands to close down immigration flows into the United States and Europe matter, but so also do the current humiliating treatment of visa applicants by Western consulates abroad.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on November 26, 2015
Sinjar’s bittersweet victory
Sinjar’s bittersweet victory
Retaking Sinjar from the Islamic State group is a triumph for Iraq, but its seizure by the Kurds could also be a setback for the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
Things couldn’t have gone much better for the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, who faces an on-going revolt by opposition parties and civil society groups for refusing to step down and hold presidential elections despite the end of his term in office in August.
A joint Kurdish force on Friday took control of the strategic town of Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of US-led coalition airstrikes after more than 15 months of its seizure by the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Barzani rushed to declare victory for “liberating” Sinjar, alleging that the town, part of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, had been retaken solely by the Kurdistan Region Government’s (KRG) forces.
“Sinjar has been liberated by the Peshmergas,” Barzani boasted, using the Kurdish name for the fighters. He said the town, like dozens of others taken back from IS, would remain forever under the KRG’s red, white, green and yellow banner.
“Other than the Kurdistan flag, we do not accept any other flag rising over Sinjar,” Barzani vowed in a video from atop a hill overlooking the city whose name has been changed by Kurds to Shengal.
But celebrating the annexation of Sinjar, underlined by Barzani’s bragging, may not be as good as it looks. By declaring the liberation of Sinjar, a contested town which is traditionally populated by the Yazidi religious minority, Barzani may have overplayed his hand while he is being challenged by the Shia-led Iraqi government in Baghdad and his Kurdish rivals.
Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi reacted angrily to the announcement and insisted that the Iraqi flag should be raised above the town, while Shia groups demanded that Sinjar be placed back under the central government’s control.
Meanwhile, Barzani has been facing tough opposition to his leadership at home. The main Kurdish parties have challenged his legitimacy as KRG president after he refused to hold elections to choose a new president following the expiration of his second term in office.
Barzani has also refused to step down, triggering a political crisis that has paralysed the government and regional parliament. The dispute culminated in late October when the KRG unilaterally removed four ministers from the Gorran (Change) Party from their posts and replaced them with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) loyalists.
Barzani’s KDP security forces also barred the speaker of the parliament, a senior Gorran member, from entering Erbil, the region’s capital, in a move slammed by opposition parties as illegal.
Barzani’s swift declaration of triumph in Sinjar could be an unrealistic self-assessment by an embattled leader who is trying to reestablish himself as a Kurdish national hero.
Analysts have noted that Barzani has been trapped by his own ambitions and attempts to stay strong, and Sinjar’s capture could do little to overcome his woes by substituting IS or his political adversaries for building a unified and democratic Kurdistan.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sinjar, home to the biggest Yazidi community in Iraq and hosting some of its most scared shrines, has been a flashpoint for ethnic and religious disputes.
The Yazidis are a religious minority that descends from some of the region’s most ancient roots. Though most of the nearly half a million Yazidis in Iraq speak a kind of a Kurdish dialect they remain members of a distinctive religion.
While some Iraqi Yazidis consider themselves to be Kurds, others, like the more than a million Yazidis in Russia, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Iran who do not identify themselves with ethnicities in these countries, refuse to be identified with the Kurds, who are also predominantly Sunni Muslims.
Over the centuries, the Yazidis have been persecuted by their Muslim neighbours who see them as non-believers. In recent years, Yazidis have been slaughtered by fanatics in Iraq, including Kurds, who have used trucks laden with explosives and driven them into their towns.
Sinjar has been a hotbed for inter-Kurdish rivalry since the conflict in Syria started some five years ago. Several Kurdish factions have been seeking dominance of the strategic town which lies on the border with Syria and Turkey.
While Barzani’s Peshmerga forces have long been dominant in towns and villages neighbouring Sinjar, they have been contested by fighters from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey which is vying for influence across Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Following the capture of Sinjar by IS militants in summer 2014, the PKK helped to find a representative political body for displaced Yazidis and established a Yazidi force to fight against IS militants and to police Yazidi areas.
This force, considered as the most organised, is believed to have played a key role in the fight to take back Sinjar from IS militants.
Other Yazidis have independently formed a voluntary military force known as the Sinjar Defence Units. In April, KDP security forces briefly detained a leader of this group on charges of setting up an illegal military force before releasing him for fear of a backlash.
Yazidis from all over the world have joined these groups in the fight against IS.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s main rival in the autonomous Region, has also been expanding its organisations in Sinjar. Its members are working closely with the PKK, other Kurdish groups and Yazidi forces to challenge Barzani’s control of this vital area.
Sinjar is situated in territories often called “disputed territories” by the KRG. Since the war to push back IS militants began last year, Kurdish Peshmergas have seized several towns and cities, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
KRG officials said the newly acquired territories would remain under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Government and would not be returned to the Baghdad government. The territorial conflict between the Kurds and the Baghdad government is highly contentious and may trigger a war because both sides consider the land a core interest.
The recapture of Sinjar from IS comes amid rising tensions between the Kurdish Peshmergas and Shia paramilitary forces in other parts of the so-called disputed areas.
On Thursday, violence in Tuz Khurmatu, a town about 175 km north of Baghdad, left at least 16 people dead, including five civilians. The fighting turned the mostly Turkomen-populated town into a battlefield and cut a strategic road linking Baghdad to Kirkuk.
The clashes began when fighters from a Turkomen-Shia armed group tried to ram a checkpoint in the town manned by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Most of the Tuz Khurmatu population are Shias, though they are also ethnically Turkomen. They have been resisting Kurdish attempts to impose control over their town for some time.
Though the fighting stopped after mediation by top politicians, Shia militias said they had been sending reinforcements to the town and threatened to “protect” Tuz Khurmatu against what they described as “the barbaric attacks by the Kurdish Peshmergas.”
Barzani’s grip on power remains strong, but this and many other flashpoints should serve as a reminder that he needs to learn the limit of his strength and that he cannot capitalise on the chaos in Iraq to stay forever as the leader of the Kurds and advance his own agenda.
The recapture of Sinjar has dominated headlines and raised expectations that IS will now be driven from other cities in Iraq. But Barzani’s unwavering determination to keep the territories under KRG control has raised red flags in Baghdad and other capitals in the region.
While Al-Abadi has publicly voiced concerns about raising the Kurdish flag in Sinjar, other Shia politicians have warned of the Kurdish use of the standoff to expand control over huge swathes of land taken back from IS.
Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia, warned that the Shias would “liberate” Sinjar from the Kurds. “Sinjar is an Iraqi town which has changed from the Daesh occupation to another occupation,” Al-Khazali said, using the Arabic name for IS.
“We will take back the town,” he vowed.
These and other clashing interests speak volumes about the challenges Iraq now faces, and territorial disputes have a strong possibility of developing into wars.
Last week, Barzani told a delegation from Sulaimaniyah pushing for reconciliation that a Kurdish state could have been declared had the Region’s political parties avoided the current crisis over his presidency.
This overstatement might have been designed to strike a nationalistic chord, but going too far in exploiting Iraq’s chaos to serve a personal agenda will have far-reaching consequences, including the failure to eliminate IS threats to both the Kurds and the Baghdad government.
This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on November 19, 2015
Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos
Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos
Iran’s teaming up with world powers to hammer out a solution to the war in Syria does not mean an end to regional conflicts, writes Salah Nasrawi
For more than four years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have rebuffed persistent appeals to let Iran join peace-makers in Syria by arguing that Tehran is a key ally of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s bloody conflict and that it would be unthinkable to grant it a seat at the table.
The price of a ticket to the talks to find a durable political settlement in Syria, Riyadh has long insisted, would be an unequivocal commitment from Tehran to endorse a plan backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies that calls for a political transition and the departure of Al-Assad from power.
With Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict turning the tide against Al-Assad’s opponents, Riyadh finally relented and gave Tehran a free pass to an international peace gathering in Vienna on 30 October.
However, inviting Iran to attend the Vienna summit raises questions far beyond the problems and promises of Iran’s acting as a mediator in reaching a political settlement in Syria.
Will Iran’s participation guarantee greater connectivity between regional powers stalled by decades of rivalries and can they now work together to prompt peace and security?
For many Middle East watchers, the political and security impact of the conflicts that have played havoc with many of the countries in the region shows that they have been damaged beyond repair. If regional stakeholders are keen to end the entangled hotspots, they should adopt a new and common approach to their shared stability.
As expected, Iran has proclaimed the Saudi U-turn in letting it join the international peace efforts in Syria as a triumph for its regional diplomacy. “Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif boasted after receiving the invitation.
But while Tehran celebrated the Saudi and the world’s recognition of its regional diplomatic capacity, it also showed pragmatism, and probably realpolitik, by expressing its preparedness to shore up the country’s “soft power” to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian said that “Iran does not insist on keeping Al-Assad in power forever,” a declaration Saudi Arabia quickly met with scepticism. “If they’re serious, we will know, and if they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said.
Of course, it is too early to judge if the talks in Vienna have made any headway in efforts to bring peace to Syria. The group of nations with opposing stakes in the Syrian war have agreed to ask the United Nations to start a process that could lead to a ceasefire and new elections.
In an announcement following the meeting, the participants also asked the United Nations to launch a political process that would involve overseeing the rewriting of the country’s constitution and then new elections.
For many analysts, the statement, designed to show that the participants have narrowed their differences over the Syrian conflict, seemed more like wishful thinking than a realistic outcome. The controversial issue of the future of Al-Assad has remained unresolved.
What drove Saudi Arabia to drop its opposition to allowing Iran, which it has always accused of being part of the problem and not part of the solution, to participate in the direct talks is a matter of speculation.
While pressure from the United States on the kingdom may have played a part in its showing flexibility over Iran, Riyadh’s realisation that it has been misreading the game Tehran is playing in the region cannot be excluded.
Still, the unprecedented decision to permit Iran to join the talks on Syria has sparked old fears that giving Iran a seat at the regional negotiation table will reinforce Tehran’s emerging status as a recognised regional powerhouse.
Tehran’s diplomatic breakthrough comes three months after it struck its landmark nuclear deal with world powers in exchange for removing the international and US economic and financial curbs that had throttled its economy.
The deal was made to show that Iran has complied with specific obligations to reduce its capabilities of stockpiling enriched uranium and address concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear programme.
Yet, the agreement was also seen as a signal of willingness on the part of Washington, the main power behind the deal, to engage Tehran in Middle East issues and to work in concert with it to confront regional challenges such as those in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and the threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups.
Though Saudi Arabia and its allies reluctantly supported the nuclear deal, they raised concerns about Iran’s rehabilitation and expressed fears that the US would turn away from their worries about Iranian activities in some of the region’s flashpoints.
Given Saudi Arabia and its allies’ deep-rooted mistrust of Iran, it is clear that these countries want to make Iran’s participation in international efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict a testing ground of Tehran’s intentions.
The sticking point remains the future of Al-Assad and whether Iran is prepared to reverse its support for its Syrian ally and back a political process that includes replacing him. Iranian officials still say that “it should be up to the Syrian people to decide on the country’s fate.”
Yet, the predominately state-controlled media in Iran, routinely employed as a proxy to spread the message of Iranian diplomacy, may have expressed Tehran’s real view on the subject.
“With the participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals, reaching an agreement [in the Syria talks] could be difficult,” wrote Tehran newspaper Ebtekar in an editorial.
While there has been no sign that Iran will come around to the Saudi view on Al-Assad’s future, the Islamic Republic has never hidden its desire to be a partner with international and regional powers in any diplomatic push to deal with other regional flashpoints.
Here again the Iranian media may provide an insight into Iranian official thinking. “If they succeed, [the talks] can serve as an example for the international community in managing other regional conflicts in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon,” wrote the Farsi-language Iranian newspaper.
“Some of the countries in the region will gradually start recognising Iran’s regional status. Iran’s responsible behaviour on regional crises could help reduce the tension between key players,” it wrote on the eve of the Vienna talks.
Of course, the idea of a platform to discuss, or to resolve or manage, these and other conflicts on the regional level is very tempting. But that is not how the Middle East system since it came into being following the First World War has worked.
Today’s Middle East problems are not simply the result of the ongoing bloody conflicts that threaten to tear it apart, but rather are the consequences of both foreign interventions and the failures and follies of its regimes over some 90 years.
A closer look at the new diplomatic process to solve the Syrian crisis would reveal it as just another gambit that Western strategists hope will push Russia, and in Saudi Arabia’s case Iran, deeper into the Syrian quagmire.
In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue this weekend, Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, revealed his government’s thinking. It was only a matter of time before Moscow realised that its military intervention and its ardent support for Al-Assad’s continued rule were mistakes, he said.
Saudi Arabia’s assessment of the Iranian role was not much different in hoping to see Iran failing to sustain its military intervention in Syria for long and being obliged to change course.
Al-Jubeir, who spoke at the Manama Dialogue after Blinken, said that in order for any real political process in Syria to begin Iran must withdraw its forces from Syria and agree to a date and means for Al-Assad’s departure.
Such a gamble not only ignores the deep-rooted problems in the Middle East, but also the new regional dynamics. While the turbulence created by the Arab Spring since 2011 is still affecting the regional order, the rise of non-state actors is also shaking the foundations of the state system in many of its countries.
The sad truth is that the failure of the Vienna process will give Syria the final push to tear itself apart and plunge the region further into bloody chaos.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Nov. 5, 2015